In which Dodger eases on down the road
The company made good time, reaching the Blood Lands within the hour. The area was aptly named, consisting of mostly huge dunes of red dirt, and little else. Once inside the borders, Sir Rodger recommended they traveled on a few more miles, lowering the chances of Gimlet following them once and for all. Dodger was forced to agree, though he began to wonder when they would need to bed down, considering no one save the knight had slept that night. Not that Dodger was the slightest bit weary. In fact, he felt better than he had in years. Younger, stronger, more clear of mind. Now, if he could just shake this burning need to cut and run from the group, quell this desire to find some trouble of his own to get into.
Mount Doom made her appearance just after sunrise the next morning. The mountaintop peeked just out of the misty curls of fog still a good fifty miles or more away. The travelers took her appearance as a good omen, as well as a sign of a much needed break. They set up a temporary camp at the bottom of a small slope. Sarah prepared an impromptu meal while the knight readied a cook fire from kindling he had the foresight to bring from the forest. Lelanea wandered away from the others, obviously in need of a moment of privacy. Dodger gave her a few minutes alone before he sidled up to her, seeking a little powwow.
“Are you tired?” he asked.
“Not as such,” Lelanea whispered. “You?”
“Strangely enough, no. We keep walking and walking, but I don’t feel like I’ve done more than taken a pleasant stroll.”
“It must be something to do with this being a dream.”
“Makes as much sense as anything else, I suppose.”
She glanced back at the knight and princess. “I wonder if the other two will need to stop and sleep. They seem lively enough.”
“Well, it is her dream. Did you ever dream about sleeping when you were a kid?”
“Not that I can remember, but that was a long time ago.”
Dodger decided it best to leave that window alone, opting not to hand a retort for fear of the teeth waiting on the other side. “I wonder when Boon will be back.”
“Unfortunately, I have a feeling he’s back already and just lost.”
“Is that so?” Dodger snorted a laugh. “You don’t sound like you have much confidence in your man’s abilities.”
“I have confidence in the abilities that are important. His sense of direction, however, is not one of them.”
“Not to worry. If he is here, he’ll find us.”
As if waiting for Dodger to announce his presence Boon shouted, “Hey there!” He jogged down the slope to join them.
“Where have you been?” Lelanea asked.
“Showed up about two miles that way,” Boon said, motioning back up the hill. “I was worried I had missed you completely.”
“So were we.”
“I’m glad you managed to find us,” Dodger said. “What did the doc think about-”
“Hello friend,” Sir Rodger said as he joined the group. “I was beginning to worry we wouldn’t see you again.”
Dodger bit his tongue in front of the knight. Great. Now they couldn’t directly discuss Boon’s interaction with the doc. Dodger supposed it was time for a little bit of old fashioned double talk.
“Where did you get off to?” the knight asked.
“He has been scrying,” Lelanea said.
“I have?” Boon asked. “Oh, yeah. I have. I guess.”
Sir Rodger considered the excuse a moment, then asked. “Do you mind if I ask what were you crying over?”
“I wasn’t crying,” Boon said. “I was doing that thing she said I was doing.”
The knight tutted Boon into silence. “There is no shame in tears, Mr. Boon. I have spent many an hour weeping over some unfortunate event.”
“He wasn’t crying, Sir Rodger,” Lelanea said. “He was scrying.”
“What is scrying?” Sarah asked as she left her stew pot and wandered over.
The knight and child looked to boon for an explanation.
“Yeah, Boon,” Dodger said, enjoying the man’s discomfort. “Tell us all about scrying.”
“Oh, um, yeah well … it’s like looking into the future?”
“So much like it,” Lelanea said, “that it is, in fact, exactly that.”
Sarah’s eyes lit with wonder. “Can you show me how to do it?”
“No,” Lelanea said. “He can’t. It is a very dangerous spell, and takes a lot of time to perform.”
“How much time passed while you worked your magic?” Dodger asked, hoping Boon would get the true gist of the question.
Boon stared at him for a moment before he raised his eyebrows in understanding. “Ah, yeah, it’s only been a little over an hour. I mean took. It only took a little over an hour.”
“Over an hour,” the knight said. “I hope it was time well spent.”
“I was worried it took much longer,” Dodger said.
“Were the results of your scrying favorable?” Lelanea asked.
Boon stared at her, then looked back to Dodger. He shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Then the Fates agree with our current course?” Lelanea asked.
The big blond furrowed his brow and puffed his cheeks out, obviously unsure what she was asking.
Dodger cleared his throat. “Surely they did. It doesn’t take a doctor or a mystic to realize we should help the princess rescue her brother.” Dodger stressed the occupations of the two men, praying that even Boon wasn’t daft enough to miss a clue that big.
It took him a few seconds, but soon he nodded his understanding. “Why yes. Yes the fates agreed we are taking the proper course of action.
“Splendid,” the knight said. “This is pleasant news indeed. To know the Fates are on our side.”
“Yeah, they were all about the rescue. The Fates’ butler had his own opinion.”
Sir Rodger clapped Boon on the back and laughed. “You are such a jester!”
“I must confess,” Sarah said. “I thought you had abandoned us.”
“No, never,” Boon said. “I won’t leave you, Sarah. I’m here, till the end.”
“As am I,” Sir Rodger said.
“And I,” Lelanea said.
The group fell quiet as they turned, as one, to Dodger.
“What?” Dodger asked. “I’m here, aren’t I?” He walked away from them, stepping toward the steaming stew pot. “What’s for food?”
Rather than argue with him, the others chuckled at his dour attitude and joined him at the campfire. They joked and quipped about his grumpiness, blaming hunger and fatigue for his ill mood. In truth, Dodger had no idea why he couldn’t bring himself to pledge his services to the child. Perhaps it was that villain at heart, trying to work its way to the surface that kept him from promising her his guns. Or maybe he just didn’t want to make a promise he couldn’t keep. With her till the end? He reckoned it all depended on what ‘the end’ consists of in this context; the end of her dream or the end of her life. There was no way to tell, and no way was Dodger willing to place a bet.
Food turned out to be rabbit stew, a favorite of Dodger’s. Sarah made enough for everyone to have their fill, with Dodger just about licking the pot clean. Dream food, he decided, was just about better than Feng’s cooking. And that was saying a mighty lot. Once sated, the group got back on the road, traveling ever forward toward the towering peak in the distance. But that distance, it seemed, was more subjective than Dodger expected. He swore the thing was fifty miles off just an hour ago, but before he knew it, they were almost atop the accursed thing.
“Nearly there,” Sir Rodger said. “We should make Liar’s Bridge at the foot of the mountain before sunset.”
“That’s strange,” Boon said. “I feel like it was much farther away this morning.”
“Things are always more daunting on an empty stomach.”
“I reckon so.”
“At this rate we will reach the top of the mountain in another day,” Lelanea said.
“Perhaps,” Sir Rodger said. “Let us not be too optimistic.”
“Tell us more about Poison Peak,” Dodger said.
“Certainly,” the knight said. “What is it you would like to know?”
“What is it like? Will we be able to infiltrate it easily?”
“What kind of tricks can we expect from the Evil One?” Boon said.
“Where is the Prince held, specifically?” Lelanea asked.
“Whoa,” Sir Rodger said. “I possess but one tongue, friends. I can only answer one question at a time.”
“Of course,” Lelanea said. “In your own time, Sir Rodger.”
Sir Rodger cleared his throat, as if readying himself for an epic tale.
With a sigh, Dodger settled in for another dramatic moment from the knight. Dodger hated melodrama. For him, such performances were like walking through a blizzard in the nude; impractical, pointless, and more often than not left you with one hell of a cold shoulder when you were done.
Surprisingly enough, the knight kept his descriptions short, recounting Poison Peak as a fort like structure on a lonely outcropping of rock atop Mount Doom. The fort consisted of a twenty foot stone wall protecting a large hall in which the Prince was most likely held. Sir Rodger described the Evil One as an unholy abomination, half man, half hound of hell. Eight solid feet of muscle, fur and teeth, with flames for eyes, sulfuric breath and the strength as well as roar of a dragon. Dodger wasn’t surprised that Rex was such a vicious and powerful creature in the child’s dream. The thing may have been a little doggy in real life, but the havoc he wreaked was of nightmarish proportions.
“Who else will be there?” Dodger asked. “I know you say this Evil One is, well, evil, but I doubt he is alone.”
“You are correct, sir,” Sir Rodger said. “He will not be alone. I suspect there shall be all manner of vile villain. Outlaws and criminals from every corner of the land gather at Mount Doom. Poison Peak is a lodestone for the most wretched and foulest of foes. Which is how it gained its moniker, for it is a very poisonous place.”
“What is our plan of attack? Sneaking up on the wall and scaling it under the cover of darkness? That sort of thing?”
Sir Rodger wrinkled his nose, as if he had never smelled a fouler plan. “No sir. There is no honor in such a plan. I intend to walk right up to the fort, knock on the door and state my demands. If the Evil One knows what is good for him, he will return the Prince to my care.”
“You’re kidding.” Dodger hooked a thumb in Sir Rodger’s direction as he said, “Lelanea, please tell me this man is joking.”
“Sir Rodger,” Lelanea said. “As honorable as that sounds, I doubt the Evil One will deal so lightly with the likes of us.”
“I realize that, m’lady,” Sir Rodger said.
“Then what do you plan to do when he refuses your demands?” Dodger asked.
Sir Rodger smiled at Dodger. “We shall cross that bridge when we arrive at it.”
“Speaking of bridges,” Boon said and motioned to the trail ahead, which was no longer so much a trail as a curled fist of iron and wood.
“I take it that’s Liar’s Bridge?” Dodger asked.
“It was,” Sir Rodger said.
A huge ravine crossed the travelers’ path, stretching in both directions as far as the eye could see. It was a good hundred feet or more in width, making it impossible to leap. The chasm reached so deep into the earth that Dodger couldn’t see anything below save for black emptiness, removing the opportunity to quickly climb down and back up again. On both sides there sat the remnants of what used to be a bridge. It was as though someone tore the bridge apart in the middle and pushed it away, in opposite directions, leaving the metal and wood curled back over itself. The end result looked very much like the claw of some great beast reaching out of the gulch, seeking some tender morsel to drag down to the pits of hell.